Book Riot #Read Harder 2018 Wrap Up

Hello bookworms!

As you may know, every year I take part in the Read Harder Challenge by Book Riot and as I’ve just completed it for 2018, I thought I’d share my thoughts. I bang on a lot about this scheme but it really is one of the best ways that I’ve found to expand my reading horizons. If you’re not signed up to Read Harder 2019, what are you even doing with your life? Get involved!

Read Harder consists of 24 categories and you simply read a book that fits into the given parameters. Some are easy  (a book with a cover that you hate – loads of those around!) and some are really difficult (an essay anthology, a Western etc.). Here’s the full 2018 list with links to my choices:

  1. A book published posthumously – The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  2. A book of true crime – The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
  3. A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance) – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  4. A comic written and drawn by the same person – Tetris by Box Brown
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa) – The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  6. A book about nature – Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham
  7. A western – Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
  8. A comic written or drawn by a person of color – The Kite Runner Graphic Novel by Khaled Hosseini
  9. A book of colonial or postcolonial literature – Home​ Fire by Kamila Shamsie 
  10. A romance novel by or about a person of color – Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
  11. A children’s classic published before 1980 – The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt
  12. A celebrity memoir – Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection – Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  14. A book of social science – A Good Time to be a Girl by Helena Morissey
  15. A one-sitting book – Women by Chloe Caldwell
  16. The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series – Everless by Sara Holland
  17. A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author – The Power by Naomi Alderman
  18. A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image – Giant Days by John Allison
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation – 1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami:
  20. A book with a cover you hate – The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
  21. A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author – The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin
  22. An essay anthology – Not That Bad ed. Roxane Gay
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60 – The Lido by Libby Page
  24. An assigned book you hated (or never finished) – Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Out of this fairly random assortment of books, five really stood out. In no particular order, they were:

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank  

Anne’s diary detailed her life in hiding during the Second World War from the Nazis. It wasn’t what I expected but I found it completely engaging and terribly affecting. 

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

This under-the-radar book had me completely spellbound from the first page to the last. It’s the true story of the theft of several highly valuable bird specimens from a museum and leads to the bizzare world of competitive fishing fly tying, organised crime and orchestral music. Unexpectedly brilliant, if you come across this book I’d urge you to read it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The story of a dystopian future where women are kept in servitude, this felt weirdly prescient for a book published in the 80’s. I loved it. 

Women by Chloe Caldwell

Another under-the-radar book, this novella had me completely addicted. It’s the very simple story of a lesbian relationship but it’s beautifully written and utterly compelling.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Flynn

I loved everything about this domestic noir thriller, from the characterisation to the plot twists to the dark, Hitchcock-esque atmosphere. Fantastic.

Every year, Read Harder throws up some brilliant books that I wouldn’t have otherwise read and this year has been no exception. I think that overall, the two books that really left a lasting impression on me were The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and Not That Bad ed. by Roxane Gay. Both were really powerful own voices novels of women struggling through adversity and both have haunted me ever since reading them.

The books that really surprised me were The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson for it’s portrayal of a strange little world that I knew nothing about; The Lido by Libby Page which I’d assumed would be fluffy chick lit but turned out to be a very moving portrayal of lonliness, grief, ageing and community; Women by Chloe Caldwell which was a tiny little novella that massively drew me in to the portrayal of a relationship between two women and Tetris by Box Brown which was a fascinating story of the history of the game Tetris told in graphic novel form. All of these books looked like they weren’t really my thing but they all completely surpassed my expectations.

The books that I achieved the most satisfaction from reading were 1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Both were long, complicated tales that took dedication to get through but they were both utterly worth it.

The funniest book that I read was My Life and Other Unfinished Business by the legend that is Dolly Parton. The woman is an untapped well of positivity and compassion and her life story is incredible (at one point she gets abducted by aliens – it gets mentioned almost as a footnote on one single page. That’s how jam packed her life has been). 

I was introduced to a completely new genre with Tetris by Box Brown and The Kite Runner graphic novel by Khaled Hosseini. Graphic novels have really expanded from their comic book origins and they’re definitely a genre that I’d like to read more from. In saying that, Giant Days by John Allison was a more traditional comic and that was amazing too!

Overall, I loved taking part in Read Harder 2018 and I can’t wait to get involved in Read Harder 2019!

Did you take part in the Read Harder Challenge this year? What were the best books that you read? Let me know in the comments!

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Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo


Genre: Classic

Similar to: In a weird way, the Bible? 

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of heavy lifting

Publication date: 1862

Ok, I lied. This isn’t a review.

There is simply no way to summarise a book that is over 1200 pages long and covers almost every topic that you can think of without it turning into a dissertation (or a parody review – I could use massively flowery language and insert a big chunk of text about Waterloo somewhere in the middle…) but it’s Christmas and whilst I’m ideas rich I’m time poor (although that is a suitably massive sentence – stop it Lucinda!) So instead, I’m going to attempt to talk about some of the main points that struck me about the book-that-has-taken-me-a-year-to-read. Wish me luck.

Les Miserables is a vast, epic novel written in the about what life in France was like for it’s ordinary citizens during the first half of the nineteenth century. Jean Valjean is a prisoner, put to work on the galleys (prison ships) for stealing a loaf of bread. He escapes, reinvents himself and goes about trying to live his life as the best person he can be, helping everyone he meets as and when he can. He sacrifices himself numerous times for his ethics but continues to live selflessly. He encounters Fantine, a woman doing everything she can to ensure a good life for her daughter Cosette. Through a series of events, Jean Valjean discovers that Cosette is being worked like a slave by the unscrupulous Thénardier family and buys her from them, bringing her up as his own daughter. He escapes the clutches of the law numerous times and ensures Cosette is given a the happiest life possible. (This is a hugely simplified summary with many events and characters missing but it’s the best I’ve got).

I think the first thing to do is a shout out to whoever invented e-readers. I read Les Miserables on a Kindle and it’s a good job too – this is a BEHEMOTH of a book. As much as I would have liked to slam it down on a train table, or perhaps carry it in my arms whilst looking wistful in a Breton striped top, I simply don’t have the upper body strength for that sort of show-offy nonsense. If you’re into that kind of aesthetic though, this is the book for you.

In order to deal with the sheer length of the book, I signed up to a read-along where you read one of the 365 chapters a day for a year. I would guess that the book was written with that in mind, although the chapters themselves vary wildly in length with some less than a page long and some taking half an hour to get through. I quickly found that reading just one chapter was never going to work for me, so I tended to save up a week’s worth of reading and have an omnibus binge instead.

The novel, apart from being massive, is amazing. And very…French. It’s political and idealistic and raw and gritty and factual and endlessly quotable and brilliant and sad and funny and despite being written nearly 200 years ago it’s still (sadly) relevant to society today. I imagine that it was controversial in it’s day for the portrayal of ordinary people struggling through their ordinary lives; living in poverty, going hungry, doing everything they can to make ends meet. There are some truly tragic characters but through Jean Valjean there’s a sense of hope and an overall redemptive arc that lifts the narrative from depressing to inspiring.

There are literally SO MANY life lessons to be learned from Les Miserables. I’ve just read another review where someone said that this book makes you want to be a better person and I think that’s right. One of the central ideas is that by treating everyone – even a convict or a prostitute – with respect, that person will not only use that kindness, they’ll pay it forwards. If we could all see each other as human beings, rather than putting them into boxes full of made up assumptions, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

There’s also huge questions around ethics; what is legally right and what is morally right. Jean Valjean learns that whilst the state can punish him, abuse him and take away his freedom, they can’t harm his soul. He consistently does what he feels is right, even when this is often the hardest (and sometimes the illegal) option to take. In contrast, we see Javert the police officer bound by the letter of the law, acting entirely within the boundaries of legality even when this causes abject human suffering. The compassion that Jean Valjean is able to show eventually becomes Javert’s undoing (written, I have to say, in an extraordinarily beautiful way).

Despite the heavy moral overtones, Les Miserables never comes across as preachy or judgemental. There is so much light and shade within the novel that despite it’s length, you’re compelled to keep reading. True, the language used is often excessively flowery but somehow I didn’t mind it. I was concerned that the book was going to stray into the realms of poverty porn, romanticizing the misery that many of the characters faced but I needed have worried – there are scenes of children going hungry, homelessness, torture…the parts that stayed with me the most were the treatment of prisoners being moved across the country and the slow demise of poor Fantine. These scenes were truly upsetting but again, beautifully written.

Occasionally, there were parts that dragged – I almost gave up when I got to the part about the battle of Waterloo – but the short chapters and interspersing philosophical/historical/cultural asides into the main narrative really worked for me. I felt like I learnt so much about that period of history and my new found knowledge keeps rearing it’s head in the weirdest of places – like when I was on holiday in Devon and found out that 19th Century French prisoners of war had been moved from galley ships to Dartmoor prison and had built the church there by hand.

In contrast, there were parts that I absolutely flew through – the Thénardier heist, the barricade scenes and the sewers were some of the best bits of literature that I’ve ever read. Truly amazing prose.

Overall, Les Miserables is an incredible book. I found the portrayal of ordinary people a particularly fascinating topic and I loved learning about the real world events that took place during the same period. Yes, it takes time and dedication to read – and you will have a truly epic book hangover when you’re done – but it’s well worth it.

Rating: Four and a half “this can’t be right…96% complete, 4 hours 37 minutes left – WTF?” out of five.

Exhausting, occasionally waffley but overall brilliant. Plus, you’ll have arms like Michelle Obama if you read it in hardback. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #24 Read an assigned book that you hated or never finished.

Review: Not That Bad ed. Roxane Gay

“Dispatches from rape culture”

Genre: Non-fiction, Anthology

Similar to: Nasty Women, Misogynation by Laura Bates

Could be enjoyed by: Enjoy is not the right word AT ALL but this book is so so important it should be read by everyone.

Publication date: 1st November 2018

Wow. This book is like a gut-punch to your emotions. It’s incredibly powerful, often difficult to read but ultimately incredibly important.

Not That Bad is an anthology of #ownvoices stories about rape, assault and harassment. It’s intersectional, featuring people from many different backgrounds (including men and some “household names” that I’d never heard of, but whatever. Not important. The stories are universal). It features a really broad spectrum of experiences (often in quite graphic detail) but also mixes in everyday harassment stories and casual misogyny -and it’s that that makes the book so relatable. It really illustrates how behaviour that we think of as being low-level (or even acceptable) is really the thin end of a wedge that goes from wolf whistles to rape. 

The book focuses on a lot of the issues that rarely gets discussed – coercion, manipulation and abuses of power all feature. It totally breaks down the myth that rape solely consists of a man dragging you into the bushes when you’re walking home at night and the idea that if you didn’t categorically and loudly say the word no then how could anyone reasonably think that you weren’t gagging for it? I really appreciated how the more grey areas of sexual assault were explored and the bravery of the contributors who said “this is what happened and I don’t know if it was rape but I know it was bad”. 

At many times I felt like throwing this book at a wall (if it had been a paperback I would have – you don’t get that excitement with e-ARCs). Weirdly, what got to me the most wasn’t the experiences of the victims but the responses of the people that they told. The title of the book itself refers to how experiences of sexual assault are downplayed – at least you weren’t killed, at least it happened when you were old enough to deal with it, at least he didn’t hurt you, at least you’re ok now. It’s not that bad. That sentiment seemed to be echoed over and over again. Urgh.

What amazed me was the stories about the perpetrators who didn’t feel like they’d done anything wrong. Obviously all of the stories are shocking but the very idea that someone could rape/assault a woman and genuinely not know was mind blowing. The guy who wrote the “sweet” story of hooking up with his girlfriend by carrying her semi-conscious body to the beach to have sex with her was so wrong on so many levels and genuinely made me feel sick. How did we get to a point where young people could think that situation could be construed as romantic?

I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to read this book but I’d highly recommend doing it in small bites. There’s just…a lot. A lot to process. A lot to get mad about. A lot to make you cry. Also, please think carefully about whether the book is going to be triggering for you. It’s pretty graphic and covers a wide range of experiences so do be careful with your mental health. 

Rating: Four and a half “at least you weren’t killed” out of five .

Powerful, upsetting but so, so important. Huge love and respect for everyone that contributed. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #22 Read an essay anthology.

 

Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

“From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail”

Genre: Memoir, Travelogue, Bereavement Help

Similar to: A mix of Eat, Pray, Love and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Could be enjoyed by: I think people experiencing bereavement could find it helpful

Publication date: 20th March 2012

If you asked me to sum up Wild in one sentence it would be “a woman goes for a very long walk wearing incorrect footwear”. I really did find it that dull as it felt like the book plodded along at a snail’s pace. It’s a shame because I expected far better things from the novel, especially after reading all of the rave reviews. My overarching feeling was “meh”.

To expand on that one sentence description of the book, Cheryl Strayed is a young American woman whose life has been seriously derailed by the death of her mother and the subsequent break up of her marriage. After quitting University in her final term to help with her mother’s end of life care, Cheryl struggles to cope and a series of bad decisions leads to her decision to do something drastic – spending a few months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail completely solo. She has to carry all of her food, water and belongings on her back and camp each night out in the open. It’s an incredibly brave decision to make but ultimately I just didn’t find it that engaging.

Now, before you all jump into the comments section and call me a monster for trashing a book about a young woman who has just watched her mother die, I’m not saying that the book wasn’t emotional. On the contrary, it was harrowingly, viscerally grief ridden – to the point where I struggled to read some of the parts about Cheryl’s Mum’s last few days. It was just…depressing. Obviously, death is an incredibly upsetting topic but I wanted more of a redemptive arc – a sense of letting go of the grief and moving forwards but instead this is how the book went: 

walking, shoe problems, flashback: traumatic illness 

walking, bag too heavy, flashback: traumatic childhood

walking, hungry, flashback: harrowing death

walking, got lost, flashback: drug problems

walking, more shoe problems, flashback: divorce

walking, cold and wet, flashback: family drifts apart

walking, finally some sex, flashback: traumatic horse death

walking, money problems, flashback: more traumatic childhood

walking, anger 

The End.

I had complicated emotions about Cheryl. On the one hand I felt incredibly sorry for her as she seemed to be totally adrift in her life. Her Dad was abusive, her stepdad disinterested, her brother and sister were distant after the death of her mother. But whilst that provided a background for some of the situations that Cheryl got herself into, I did feel like some of her problems were entirely her own fault. Some of the things she had done to other people, whilst clearly a reflection of her own lack of self esteem/depression, were downright shitty. I felt bad that no-one had tried to help her but then would you help your wife if she’d cheated on you multiple times? 

Probably not.

On the plus side, although Cheryl was woefully inexperienced and naive (she doesn’t test the weight of her pack until the day she begins walking and finds she can’t lift it; she doesn’t have enough money; she doesn’t read the guidebook; she has the wrong size shoes) she perseveres and muddles through. In that way I had a lot of respect for her but I did find her lack of preparation infuriating. I mean, people die every year doing that hike. You’d have thought she’d at least have done a few overnight camping trips beforehand. Or, you know, checked she could pick up the bag that she’s be hauling round for the next few months (let along carry the bloody thing).

The journey itself is pretty epic and I will grudgingly admit that Cheryl’s tenacity and no-nonsense attitude was inspiring. I felt like her decision to  hike the Pacific Crest Trail was her attempt to come to terms with everything and although this was a book about “finding yourself” it managed to do so in a way that wasn’t too self indulgent. Unfortunately, this meant pages and pages of just…walking. Lots of flowery descriptions, lots of info dumps, quite a few transitory characters who were so briefly in and out of the story that I couldn’t remember who any of them were when they popped up later on – and it was all interspersed with the depressing details of Cheryl’s life. Then there was a rushed ending where she reached the finish point…and that was it.

Sadly, Wild just wasn’t the book for me – although I’m well aware that my views are seriously in the minority. I thought that the novel literally plodded along and although it was genuinely inspiring I also found it pretty depressing – and I hate to say it but also pretty boring. Imagine Lord of the Rings without any magic. 

Yeah.

Rating: Two and a half “why the hell didn’t you read the guidebook?!?” out of five.

As inspiring as it is infuriating, I found Wild a real slog to get through. Everyone else seems to love it but I can’t for the life of me see why.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #13 Read an Oprah book club selection.

Review: 1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami

Genre: Magical realism/fantasy

Similar to: Literally nothing. 

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Murakami who also have a lot of patience

Publication date: 16th April 2010

The world of Haruki Murakami is a very, very weird one. Literally no-one writes like he does. All of his books are set in quiet towns in Japan where people with ordinary lives have extraordinary, strange and bizzare things happen to them. His work defies categorisation – weird Japanese realistic fantasy is about as close as I can get. However, the stories are so brilliantly written and beautifully detailed that the fantasy elements feel totally natural to the overall narrative – to the point where you can describe an entire book and forget to mention that the main character can converse with cats.

This is quote from my review of 1Q84 Book One (which I also used in my review of 1Q84 Book Two) and I still think it sets the tone nicely. Basically, Murakami books are downright weird – and 1Q84 is possibly the weirdest one yet. 1Q84 Book Three (the culmination of the trilogy) is where the average writer would begin to tie up loose ends…but Murakami clearly had other ideas. I’m actually left with more questions now than I had at the beginning, some of which involve pretty major plot points. The question is though – do I actually care? Did I expect to find anything out?

I guess the answer is…no. 

A big, fat resounding no. 

No

NO

NO.

You see, that’s the genius of Murakami. I didn’t really expect to have any answers, I don’t know what happened, nothing has been resolved before getting to the book’s final destination. 

All I know is, I just really, really enjoyed the journey.

1Q84 Book Three kicks off directly after the dramatic ending of Book Two, where Aomame was stood with a gun in her mouth about to pull the trigger. There’s a slightly laboured point about Chekhov maintaining that any gun introduced to a story must be fired so I was expecting some major drama. Except…that’s not what happens. 

Basically – nothing happens. 

The book is one long nothingy nothingness of no action, no drama and no plot development – and yet it still managed to grip me from the first page to the last.

No, I’m not entirely sure how either. But it did.

I think that perhaps one of the ways that Murakami managed this feat was the introduction of time slips and the concept that time was moving faster and slower for different characters or in different situations. This is all done extremely subtly through suggestion and the storyline is left up to the reader to piece together as the characters (none of whom meet each other until the very end of the book) weave in and out of each other’s narratives. In reality, this was done extremely effectively so it wasn’t as confusing to understand as it sounds and it added a new layer of WTF to keep me entertained. 

I said in my Book Two review that I felt emotionally distant from the two main characters and this feeling remained during Book Three. For all his genius, I don’t think that Murakami writes women very well and honestly, the number of times that breasts were mentioned bordered the ridiculous. I literally know more about Aomame’s tits than I do about the main storyline (to be fair, not that difficult) and the final heartening scene was somewhat ruined by her apologising for having small boobs. I mean, really….

The ending itself explained literally nothing and although I was heavily invested in the storyline, I quite liked the open-ended “resolution” as I felt I had enough information to draw my own conclusions.

So, who are the little people? Why were Tengo and Aomame inextricably linked? What even is 1Q84? 

Who gives a shit. This is a brilliant, epic trilogy; a masterpiece of magical realism and a fantastic, complex work that I’m sure most people will hate but I absolutely loved. 

Rating: Four and a half levels of unexplained weirdness out of five.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #19 Read a book of genre fiction in translation.

 

Review: The Kite Runner (Graphic Novel) by Khaled Hosseini

Genre: Graphic novel

Similar to: Persepolis

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of graphic novels who want their stories to be a bit darker, more diverse and emotional

Publication date: 6th September 2011

Wowzers. I’d already read The Kite Runner when it first came out and although I remember thinking at the time what a good book it was, it didn’t really make a huge impact on me. However, reading the graphic novel was a completely different experience. Maybe it’s because I read it all in one go, maybe it’s because the pictures added an emotional depth and connection that I didn’t get as much of from the book or maybe it’s because it was basically a re-read but the result was that I LOVED IT.  

In case you don’t know, The Kite Runner is the story of Amir, who lives in wealthy Kabul in the 1970’s. He and his best friend Hassan dream of winning the local kite flying championship but a shocking and violent event leaves Amir with a difficult choice – whether to intervene to save his friend and possibly put himself in danger, or whether to walk away. Amir’s choice has major repecussions but due to the ever changing fortunes of the country that he loves, he is offered the opportunity of redemption. 

As I said, I really engaged with the graphic novel version of this story far more than the book. I loved the illustrations and the limited pallet used was immediately evocative of the Middle East. I liked how the story had been condensed but without leaving out any important bits – in fact, the pictures and narrative together gave me a much clearer idea of the story and really brought it to life. I thought this worked particularly well for the more violent parts of the storyline – you can describe a rape scene using the most graphic language that you want but to see a depiction of the look on the victim’s face and the blood on the back of his jeans is an image that will stay with me for a long time. 

It was this visceral imagery that really made me connect with the characters. You can completely understand the motivations of Amir and Hassan (they are only children after all) and although the events which take place are heartbreaking, it was the portrayal of their friendship that I felt so deeply moved by.  

I loved how the tension that was such a central part of the original book was retained in the graphic novel format and how the emotional storyline was portrayed. The Kite Runner is a really gripping book and I enjoyed reading about a totally different lifestyle and culture, despite the horrific events that were also depicted. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the graphic novel version of the story but the combination of great writing and beautiful illustrations really worked well for me. I actually think that I preferred it to the original book (or perhaps the combination of knowing the full story and then reading the graphic novel is what worked) as the more straightforward storyline was easier to follow and connect with.

This led me to think: have I just opened up to a whole new genre of graphic novels that I wasn’t previously aware of? Have I finally managed to strike a balance with re-reading, as a graphic novel version of a book that I’ve already read still feels like a new book (so no so-many-books-so-little-time guilt) but retains that familiarity of a story that you already know? Is this why you lot all love fairy story re-tellings?

Who knows. All I’m sure of is that I’ll definitely be looking up more of these types of graphic novels in the future – and I’ll definitely be recommending The Kite Runner graphic novel to everyone I know.

Rating: Four and a half heartbreaking Hassan quotes out of five.

Evocative, engaging and deeply emotional, The Kite Runner graphic novel is an unexpected treasure. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #8 Read a comic written or illustrated by a person of colour.  

Review: The Letter For The King by Tonke Dragt

Genre: Fantasy, Children’s Literature

Similar to: The Hobbit, LOTR

Could be enjoyed by: Parents looking to read their kids something other than Harry Potter

Publication date: (In translation) 7th November 2013, originally published in 1962

Some of you may remember that I sent out a request a while ago asking for suggestions for some of the remaining categories in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. One of those categories was to read a children’s classic published before 1980 and although you all gave some excellent suggestions, I shamelessly ignored them and read The Letter for the King instead. Sorry! I do honestly appreciate your imput, but this book just looked sooooo interesting that I had to give it a go.

Anyway…

The Letter for the King is something of a classic in mainland Europe but for some inexplicable reason was never translated into English until a few years ago (WHY???) The book follows the adventures of Tiuri, a teenage page who is on his way to becoming a fully fledged Knight. However, a chance encounter leads to Tiuri becoming tasked with a quest to travel across the Great Mountains to deliver a message to the King. In order to do so, Tiuri must avoid numerous perils, pitfalls and shady characters conspiring to stop him – otherwise the whole kingdom could be brought to it’s knees. 

Unsurprisingly, this is a lovely, exciting, easy read. It’s described as Children’s Fiction but I’d say the age range could be a little older – say ten years and up (I hate writing an upper age limit on these recommendations – I’m 35 and I enjoyed it!). I loved Tiuri and his unfailing dedication to always doing what was right – I thought he would make a great role model, especially for young boys. Unfortunately, these’s not a lot of (barely any) female representation but I’m reliably informed that this is rectified in the sequel. 

I really enjoyed all the action and suspense within the novel. I can imagine that if you’re reading the book as a bedtime story your kids would definitely be begging you for one more chapter. There’s just so much that happens and lots of chapters end on cliffhangers, so be warned!

I loved the central themes of bravery, friendship and choosing the right thing to do, even if it is the more difficult option. Although it feels very much like a high fantasy novel, there’s actually no magical elements so it makes for a bit more of a straightforward read. I actually didn’t miss them at all as the storyline has more than enough going on.   

Although the book is a great translation, it does retain something of that Germanic/Eastern Bloc creepiness that I have potentially only picked up on because I was subjected to watching those weird foreign cartoons as a child (things were very different at the BBC in the 80’s).Think like The Moomins or The Singing Ringing Tree, as parodied beautifully here by The Fast Show:  

Overall, I loved escaping into the world of Tonke Dragt. The Letter for the King is a great book to be enjoyed at any age and yet another brilliant find courtesy of Book Riot. I’d encourage you all to read it.

Rating: Four ‘how do I pronounce that inexplicably scary name’ out of five.

Fast paced, exciting and easy to read – I’m sure this book will now gain a whole new legion of English-speakng fans. 

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #11 Read a children’s classic published before 1980.  

 

Review: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Genre: Autobiography, monologic epistolary work

Similar to: Pretty much a one-off

Could be enjoyed by: Everyone – it’s such an important book

Publication date: 25th June 1947

This book broke me. Literally – ugly crying. Mascara everywhere. Don’t read the last two pages with makeup on. 

I’m sure you’re all aware of Anne Frank and her famous diary but just in case you’re not, I’ll briefly summarise it for you. Anne and her family were German Jews who had moved to Amsterdam to escape Nazi persecution during the Second World War. Unfortunately, as the war progressed and The Netherlands became occupied by Germany, the family went into hiding. They lived with another family and one single man in what Anne called ‘The Annex’ – the top three floors of a factory with an entrance concealed by a bookshelf. Anne’s letters to her fictional friend Kitty form the contents of her diary, where she recorded her life in The Annex. 

I’d never read this book before and had always assumed that it would be a bleak, harrowing tale of starvation, worry and appalling living conditions. But that’s not what it’s like at all. Firstly, the Frank family seemed to be relatively well off before they went into hiding so were able to afford enough basics on the black market to ensure they didn’t starve. Secondly, The Annex was much bigger than I imagined – far from being a cramped, damp cellar I was surprised to see that they had access to number of different rooms, beds, a toilet, an area for cooking etc. Thirdly, I had forgotten that the diary is written by a teenage girl. No offense to teenage girls – after all, I did used to be one myself – but I’d simply forgotten that your world view at fourteen is almost exclusively centered around yourself. As such, there are far fewer mentions of concern about the War, worries about food/money/health and much more teenage angst than I’d bargained for. 

That’s not to say that the diary isn’t harrowing in places, or that Anne is completely unaware of the danger that she’s in. She’s simply your average teenager; slightly self obsessed, slightly delusional, outspoken and melancholy and full of hormones. Basically, she was exactly like I was when I was her age. 

This made me empathise with Anne in a way that I hadn’t expected. I completely understood her bold claims, her introspection, her life-is-so-unfair-and-I-hate-you attitude to her Mum (let’s be honest, her life was pretty unfair although I don’t think her Mum had much to do with it). Anne’s obsession with the boy upstairs (Peter) took me right back to my teenage crushes and I had to laugh at her attitude towards making him fall in love with her.

All of this meant that I really, really liked her. Anne had a real gung-ho, make the most of it attitude towards life that I really respected. I loved how she stood up for herself, how clever she was, even her continual attempts to make herself a better person and her ability to see how much she’d changed during her time in hiding. I loved her characterisation of the people that she lived with and her scathing assessment of their flaws – Mrs. Van Daan was a personal favourite. I think that if I’d met Anne at fourteen, I would have liked to have been her friend.  

As I got closer to the end of the book, the sense of foreboding which had been with me throught my reading increased. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Anne, her family and the other people that were living in The Annex were discovered by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. There were just no words when I read the horrific way that each invidual had been treated and the subsequent manner of death for all of them except for Otto Frank, Anne’s Dad. To learn that they had all perished mere weeks before the liberation of the camps was especially upsetting. 

In an era when White Supremacy, Neo-Nazis and Holocaust denial is on the rise, it would be lovely to think that a long-dead teenage girl might be able to change the mindset of some seriously misinformed people.

Rating: 🌟Five “Dear Kitty”s out of five🌟

Poignant, deeply affecting but amazingly lighthearted – an incredibly important book to read. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #1 Read a book published posthumously.

 

Review: Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton

Genre: Memoir, Autobiography.

Similar to: Well, it’s a celebrity memoir so…all the other celebrity memoirs?

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Dolly Parton, obvs.

Publication date: 22nd September 1994

Now, I’m sure you’re all aware of Dolly Parton the country music singer, businesswoman and all around amazing person. I’ve previously blogged about Dolly’s Imagination Library here and talked about how wonderful I think she is. So when I found the inexplicably out-of-print autobiography Dolly: My Life and Other unfinished Business I was immediately excited to read it. 

The first thing to say about this book is hooo-boy, Dolly has led a pretty amazing life. From growing up in the Smokey Mountains to her metoric rise to fame, hers is your quintessential rags to riches story – and when I say rags to riches, I literally mean growing up in rags to becoming a multi-millionaire.

It’s genuinely hard to comprehend the level of poverty that Dolly grew up in. Her home was hand built by her family, it was papered with newspapers to keep the drafts out and the family’s chickens lived underneath it (and used to poke their beaks up between the gaps in the floorboards). I really enjoyed reading about her early life because despite having pretty much nothing, the Parton’s were a resourceful lot and in having to make their own entertainment, Dolly began to hone the singer-songwriter skills that she built her career upon. 

The other thing that growing up poor seemed to do for Dolly was to keep her humble. The book is peppered with her self-deprecating humour and jokes about her trashy apperance, her plastic surgery, the fact that her dad assumed that when she went home with her newly bleached hair and disposable income that she’d become a prostitute. She alludes to having had affairs (although she denies the lesbian ones as just good friends) but is hilariously honest about literally everything else – from not having children to her medical problems to her favourite cosmetic surgeons (there is genuinely a list of recommendations and contact details in the back). Dollly is fabulously un-classy in a way that most people would try to hide but she just doesn’t care – and that makes her life even more fun to read about. I loved her refreshing honesty and how her writing oozed with her warmth and intelligence.

I was slightly concerned that as a Christian, Dolly would stray into the realms of being preachy or judgemental but this never happened. She seems to live her life caring about and helping everyone – regardless of their background, sexuality or religion. There is a lot of talk about God but it’s always positive  – almost her own blend of Dolly wisdom and spirituality. I loved how her faith in God translated to her belief in charity, her championing of various causes and her attitude to helping out all of the members of her absolutely massive family. 

I will say that the autiobiography rambles a bit – it’s not exactly chronological and not being a country music fan I wasn’t always aware of the people that she was talking about but it was still hugely enjoyable. 

Overall, I loved reading about Dolly and her super-inspirational take on life. She’s had such a lot happen to her that it’s almost too much to fit in to a novel. Case in point? She gets abducted by aliens and writes about the experience for all of ONE PAGE. Amazing. Dolly Parton, I will always love you (oooh wahhhh).

Rating: Four ‘It’s a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise I’d be a drag queen’ out of five.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #12 Read a celebrity memoir.

 

Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

“Beauty, obsession and the natural history heist of the century”

Genre: Non-fiction (Adult), True Crime

Similar to: Fly Fishing by J.R.Hartley

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of books featured on BT adverts

Publication date: 26th April 2018

I’ll be honest – If it wasn’t for the #Read Harder Challenge by Book Riot I would never ever have picked this book up. It’s such a weird topic to write about, a completely bizzare story and features lots of different topics, none of which I’m particularly interested in.

You see, The Feather Thief is the true life story of Edwin Rist, a salmon fly tier who becomes so obsessed with the hobby that he ends up stealing a huge number of rare bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History in Tring in order to use their feathers to make salmon flies (and also makes pretty hefty profit selling the feathers on to other salmon fly tiers – Edwin is also a prodigal flautist and wants a new professional grade flute). 

Sorry, did I lose you there for a second? You don’t know what a salmon fly is? Or how it relates to dead museum birds? Or what this book is even about?

Yeah, that was pretty much my response when I read the blurb but I needed to read a book of true crime, sooooooo….yeah. I chose to read it.

And guess what?

It was INCREDIBLE!

I genuinely can’t believe how interesting this book was – especially for someone like me who knew literally nothing about salmon fishing, Victorian bird hunting or the esoteric (good word) world of modern day salmon fly tying. And now – now I know LOADS about all of these things and they are FASCINATING.

Let me explain…

The Feather Thief begins with an introduction into the world of the fishing fly. These are the things that you attach to your fishing hook (like a lure) to make the fish think that your hook is food or something to be attacked. Either way, the fish ends up with the hook in it’s mouth and you end up with a charming photo of you holding it by the tail before hopefully putting it back in the river. So, fishing flies are generally functional objects that help you to catch fish. People either buy them or make them using bits of feathers, tinsel, coloured plastic etc. – anything to grab the fish’s attention.

Except…

Except there is a bizzare, kinda underground world of people who create massively intricate, hugely expensive salmon fishing flies purely for fun – not fishing. They often follow Victorian instructions for such creations and as such need to get hold of the kinds of materials that would have been used at the time. This is where it gets interesting. You see, the Victorians loved feathers – especially from rare and/or exotic birds. Also, they didn’t give a tuppeny fig about ideals such as animal welfare, conservation or protecting vulnerable species – to be fair, none of these things had been invented yet. To the Victorians, if it moved then you should shoot it then either eat it, stuff it, preserve it or wear it. And if it came from a far flung country and looked fabulously exotic, so much the better for showing off your wealth and excellent taste. 

A huge market arose for the importation of feathers from the tropics and Asia (primarily for fashion) and so it was only natural that a gentleman interested in country pursuits should show off with a display of the finest, most highly decorative salmon flies that money could buy, whilst his wife paraded around with a dead bird on her hat. 

Cut to the present day…

For some bizzare reason, people are still interested in creating Victorian salmon flies (I guess everyone has to have a hobby). However, many of the materials required are now protected by law – the Victorians pretty much decimated much of the natural populations of thousands of animal species, particularly exotic birds. So, demand for rare feathers in the world of salmon fly tiers is particularly high – especially as their availability is so scarce.

Still with me?

Ok, so this is where Edwin Rist comes in. He’s a young American teenager with meagre funds but an all-consuming obsession with fly tying. Studying in the UK, he hears about the collection of bird skins that were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace (a contemporary of Darwin) who painstakingly caught, labelled and preserved exotic birds in the wild and had them shipped back to the UK for scientific research. Edwin views some of the collection (now housed at the British Museum of Natural History in Tring), scopes the place out then returns at a later date and steals hundreds of the specimins, specifically to create salmon flies (or to sell on to other tiers).

No, really. He absolutely decimates the collection of irreplaceable scientific specimens so that he can create salmon flies – display purposes only. 

The Feather Thief investigates everything from Wallace’s voyages to the tropics and the Victorian fascination with feathers to Edwin Rist himself, what happened when he raided the museum, how he was eventually caught (tiny spoiler – the museum didn’t even notice that the birds were missing for MONTHS) and also tries to trace the missing birds. It features interviews with some of the main players in the fly tying world and eventually the author even manages to talk to Rist himself. The whole thing is utterly fascinating and far more interesting than I’ve made it sound.

I loved learning all about the history of collecting bird specimens (for scientific research, private collections and for profit) and the huge industry that this created. Although this could have been a pretty dry info-dump the conversational tone of the author brought the subject matter to life. Johnson’s overall style reminded me of Bill Bryson (who as far as I’m concerned could make any subject captivating) and I could really feel how personally invested he was in the story. Although I’m pretty ignorant about the history of feather trading, The Feather Thief seemed to be very well researched and was heavily referenced throughout.

As the book progressed and Johnson focused more on the psychology of why Rist would risk everything to commit such a crime (and the arguments that his defence lawyer used to mitigate his sentencing) the manuscript becomes more of a psychological thriller. Who really is Edwin Rist? Was his sentencing fair? Where are the birds that he stole? How many members of the fly tying community knew about the heist or suspected they were buying stolen birds/feathers but didn’t say anything? Johnson investigates all of these questions and whilst he doesn’t necessarily come up with the answers, he objectively presents all of the evidence available and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Cleverly constructed, impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, The Feather Thief is an incredible book. I was completely sucked into the murkey world of salmon fly tying and the story of how a teenager could pull off such a high stakes, valuable, devastating heist with little more than some wire cutters, a rock he found on the ground and a wheelie suitcase. Seriously – just go and read it for yourself.

Rating:🌟Five felonious feather filching foreign flautists out of five🌟

Bonkers, esoteric psychological crime drama that could easily have been the plot of a of Jonathan Creek episode. Brilliantly engaging, a great pick for a true crime book that doesn’t feature a murder or violence of any kind. Weird and truly wonderful.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #2 Read a book of true crime.